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Unit 5 Parents Allege Racial Bias In Student Discipline, Hiring

Breanna Grow
Dr. Kristal Shelvin, right, told the Unit 5 Board of Education Monday night that she'd like to see a more concerted effort from administrators to address racial discrimination.

Four Unit 5 parents are alleging the district discriminates against black students and black job applicants.

Dr. Kristal Shelvin is a parent of one former and one current Unit 5 student, and works as a school psychologist in Livingston County.

Shelvin told the Unit 5 school board Monday night that she’s heard from numerous black parents and students that students feel both singled out for disciplinary action and excluded when it comes to academic achievement.

"Many of these efforts were met with a lackluster response. Sometimes they were even rebuffed."

“We can’t pinpoint for these particular students what's going on, but if you look at the research, we really do see that there are a whole host of things that are concerning,” she said.

Shelvin shared some of that research, sourced from the Illinois Report Card and ProPublica, showing that across Unit 5, while black students make up 12% of the student body, they account for 50% of expulsions and 35% of suspensions.

“Additionally, African American students are 4.6 times more likely to be suspended in our community than white students,” she said.

She described racial discrimination as debilitating and a threat to students’ welfare.

“I think when we’re talking about the most important thing for students, being the relationships with adults, it behooves those adults to look into that and see how we can make sure that everyone is feeling welcomed at school,” she said following the meeting.

Shelvin said she has met individually with district administrators about the issue, but believes a broader discussion is needed.

“I’ve offered to speak to staff, share book titles with administrators, but many of these efforts were met with a lackluster response—sometimes they were even rebuffed,” she said.

Shelvin said she’d like to see the district launch a task force to put forth “a more concerted effort, so that we could as a group really move forward with conversations.”

Superintendent Mark Daniel said the district has been looking at that data as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act aimed at advancing equity in education for high-needs and disadvantaged students.

Although President Barack Obama signed the measure into law in late 2015, “This is the first year where that data really came through strong,” Daniel said.

He said the district has held numerous interventions to help address the issue.

“The amount of multiple interventions that we’re using I will say are phenomenal, but the key is this: if they aren’t creating a change, a difference, then we need to rethink it.”

Daniel said in response to the data, the district has created a Director of Teaching and Learning position. Daniel explained the position will not only be responsible for collecting and reviewing student data, but also presenting their findings at schools throughout the district to help address any gaps between student groups.

“We’re attempting to do things differently, because if we don’t we’ll get the same old thing,” Daniel said.

Daniel said he’ll also include the district’s new human resources director in the discussion. The search to replace former HR Director James Harden is ongoing. Daniel said he expects interviews for both positions to begin June 1, with the positions filled by the start of the upcoming school year.

Tracy Hamilton is another Unit 5 parent who said as a mother of black sons, she finds the district’s hiring processes and lack of African American staff and administrators concerning.

Hamilton cited district hiring data showing of 56 certified administrators, two identified as black; of 990 certified staff, 26 identified as black; of 735 non-certified employees, 46 identify as black; and of 78 administrative assistants, one identified as black.

Hamilton said although she holds a bachelor's and two master's degrees and taught for five years in North Carolina, when she applied to teach in Unit 5, district staff said she was unqualified to sit for a licensing exam.

“To me, that is a problem,” she said.

Daniel said the district is also aware of the lack of racial diversity among its staff. He said the district’s strategic plan does include recommendations for diversifying its staff.

“We have put that forward the last couple of years, we’ve attempted a few things; it’s not made a difference, so we’re going to have to rethink it.”

During the meeting, board member Mike Trask thanked the parents for speaking up, adding, “We hear you.”

Following the meeting, Daniel stressed to the parents that he does consider the issue a problem and takes finding a solution seriously.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.